This article describes some techniques used by a lot of people who claim to be psychic that can convince people who go to see them that their psychic power is genuine and very accurate when they don't really have any at all. It also talks about experiments that have been done to try to find out if psychic ability really exists. And it gives reasons why astrology is unlikely to be worth taking seriously.
There's a section on how a lot of people from the developing world still take witchcraft extremely seriously, and reasons why people shouldn't believe in it without question, as well as ways unscrupulous people can con those who do believe in it, and those who believe in psychic power.
The article gives some information about the techniques cults use to keep members. And it advises people to be cautious about believing without question the things that religious authority figures say, as well as describing some of the techniques some of them can use that convince people something supernatural's going on when it isn't really.
It also gives natural explanations for some weird personal experiences some people have, such as premonitions, as well as saying a bit about some physical conditions such as seizures brought on by a type of epilepsy that can convince people they're having religious visions or being threatened by demons when they're not.
It contains a few stories about people's personal experiences.
The aim of the article is to help people become more wary of things that might otherwise harm or deceive them.
Go to the end of the article if you'd like to know the main sources used in creating it.
It seems most people believe psychic power exists. It can seem exciting and fun to visit psychics or for a person to test their own psychic ability. And people can believe they'll receive comfort and care and words of wisdom when they go to see a psychic, hoping they'll be able to speak with a relative who died or be able to get some insight into their future so they can prepare for what's coming. They may well get compassion and words of wisdom, but if they do, the wisdom is likely to come from the person's natural store of it, not from somewhere mysterious or supernatural.
It's impossible to know for sure that supernatural help won't be on offer; but people need to be wary, because unfortunately, many people have been conned or frightened by people who claim to be psychic, because, for instance, they have scared them by telling them they can sense that a curse has been put on them, only to ask for more and more money to remove it till they're causing the person financial problems, or they have told them things that caused them to be frightened all their lives, such as that they'll die fairly young. Those people can be full of regrets over blighted years if they live longer than they thought they would.
Reputable psychics will not do things like that to people. But there are lots of other things they do that lead to people coming away impressed with the accuracy of what they believe to be the supernatural power of the psychic, when in reality it wasn't any such thing but a clever technique that almost anyone could do if they learned it, by perfectly natural means. And people's lives can still be influenced, not always for the better. For instance, there are psychic hotlines where people with serious problems phone up and spend a lot of money talking to someone, hoping to get advice that's of a higher quality than they could get elsewhere because it has supernatural insight. But they can come away with no better advice than they could have got from a friend, and it might possibly be advice to do something that really isn't a good idea, which they're more likely to take because they believe it was given with supernatural authority.
It's because people claiming to have psychic ability can have such undue influence over people's lives that people need to understand what tricks or techniques they can use to gain people's confidence. The more they know about them, the less likely they will be to fall for them.
One reason people can easily be fooled by psychics is because they can say things that sound very specific and accurate about an individual's personality, while in reality they're things that are common to most people. Tests have been done where each person in a large group of people has been given a personality profile, supposedly of themselves, and asked to rate how accurate it is. A high percentage of people have rated it accurately and been impressed with the insight or psychic knowledge of the person describing them, when in reality everyone was given the same personality profile, not designed for them at all but something that's always used on tests like that. It was first used by a psychologist called Bertram Forer. The tendency for people to think it must have been specially written for them and to be impressed is now called the Forer effect or the Barnum effect. The personality profile says:
You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. You have a great deal of unused energy which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept other opinions without satisfactory proof. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
People tend to think the statement gives deep insight into their personality, but in reality, most people have those personality traits to some extent. Besides, there are enough claims making up the description that some are almost bound to be true.
One reason is that people claiming to be psychic will often have memorised a set of psychic readings that sound as if they were designed for an individual but in reality they're true of lots of people. They'll recite different ones according to what kind of person they're talking to; for instance, a wealthy old man will get one that's quite different from one a teenage girl still working out what to do with her life would get. And they'll modify the readings according to what they find out about each individual. So they can sound accurate, and a customer visiting a psychic can put that down to the psychic ability of the person they're visiting.
Another reason people can be impressed with psychic readings is that people tend to forget things that were said but which weren't all that relevant to them, and give the psychic the benefit of the doubt when they say something inaccurate, assuming that since communication methods between one world and another probably aren't perfect, information can't be expected to be accurate all the time. But at the same time they'll often believe it is accurate when something worrying comes up, such as if a psychic says they have a curse on them and they need to pay money to have it removed.
If a psychic says something that either sounds accurate or worrying, it'll stand out more in the memory, so a person can forget that the psychic only got one thing right in all the 200 things they said. If it surprises them because it seems so accurate, the person can still go away thinking they've seen a psychic who has accurate insights into their personality or makes accurate predictions or knows things they couldn't know any other way.
The psychic might not even have been accurate at all without a number of clues from the person visiting them. That's because if a psychic says something that sounds a little bit relevant, such as saying they're picking up a communication from someone in the spirit world whose name is John, or perhaps someone whose name has the same first letter, people will excitedly or helpfully try to help the psychic along. They might do it by saying there's a James, for example. Then the psychic will refer to the person as James from then on, and the person who helped them along might forget they did it, misremembering that the psychic got in touch with their relative James.
Also, the psychic might suspect he was the father of the person visiting them. But to avoid getting it wrong, they might ask that in more of a questioning tone. The person helping them along might think it was close and tell them he was their uncle. So the psychic has got accurate information from making a few guesses that they didn't pick up on their own. But if they refer to the spirit they're supposedly in contact with as the person's uncle James from then on, the person might forget they gave the psychic a few hints along the way, and misremember that the psychic accurately guessed they'd had an uncle James who died. That's especially if they want to believe it's true because the thought of their uncle James being still around and allright comforts them. They won't think about what happened as critically as they would if they were told something by someone they didn't want to believe in.
Accounts told by people who've visited psychics of how impressively accurate the psychic was shouldn't be taken at face value, no matter how sincere the person talking about them is, for these very reasons and more; they might simply not realise how they were taken in, and the psychic might have seemed so nice they can't believe the psychic would defraud them.
Also, they might, for instance, come to be convinced the psychic told them very specific details about their future, when what really happened was that the psychic said something that was actually fairly vague, but the person looked for meaning in it for some time afterwards, found something it applied to, became convinced the psychic was talking about that, and from then on, misremembers the psychic as having remarkably predicted that that very thing would happen. Sometimes, a psychic will actually tell them that what they say might seem a bit vague but it's up to the client to work out in the coming days or months how it fits into their lives. They can also say that their gift doesn't work that well and whether it does can depend on how receptive the client is; so if they fail, the implication is that the psychic isn't the one to blame; the client just wasn't focusing hard enough; it's not that the psychic's a fraud.
Often though, the psychic won't be trying to defraud a client; they will be picking up cues from their body language, descriptions of their circumstances and so on, and guessing things by intuition that they assume to be coming to them from a psychic gift. When they analyse what they've been doing, they can be as unhappy and embarrassed as anyone else when they realise they're not actually that accurate, they got a lot of their information from their client's clues, and they took credit for revealing things the client actually told them, - perhaps because they were so pleased they said something accurate and believed in their gift so much they forgot they weren't the one who first mentioned it.
Also, sometimes a "psychic" can say something remarkably accurate just by chance. It can seem really impressive, looking back, but if the person who heard it listened to the whole meeting over again, they might realise it was one accurate thing out of a lot of things that were said that were vague or inaccurate, that they forgot soon afterwards because they didn't seem important so the brain didn't store them.
But whether deliberate or not, psychics gain information they can deduce things about the client from by using a number of perfectly natural techniques. A lot of psychics are aware that the things people are likely to want insight into fall into a very few main areas: relationship issues, career and financial worries, and health. They can use that knowledge to say they can sense the person visiting them has, or has had in the past, or will have in the future, three main areas of concern, but there's only time to talk about one. They'll ask the customer to choose which one they'd like to talk about, and immediately the customer answers, they have information about what's concerning the customer. They can guess more about the customer by thinking about what's most likely to be concerning someone of their age, ethnicity, class and financial circumstances, which they can get some idea of by looking for clues such as the way the customer dresses, the kind of car they have, whether they're wearing jewellery and what kind of quality it is, and things like that.) They guess at what kind of problems someone of the kind they assess the customer as being is likely to have. For instance, a young person might be more likely to have career concerns and an old person is likely to be concerned about declining health. A middle-aged person might well be concerned about the behaviour of their teenage children, and so on.
The psychic will look at the customer's body language to get clues as to whether they're making good guesses about what's bothering them or not, and how much the customer wants them to carry on talking about the thing they've mentioned. Often the customer will tell the psychic how close they're getting and give clues by talking a bit about the things the psychic's brought up. If what the psychic says isn't relevant to the customer's concerns, they'll be able to pick up on that quickly by the customer's facial expression, eye movements and so on. They'll use those clues to tell them to change the subject a bit. When they're closer to what's concerning the customer, they'll be able to pick up on that by the customer's facial expressions and so on.
So soon, they can be guided by all the clues to say things that are highly relevant to the customer. The customer will likely assume they're doing it by psychic ability, even reading their mind. And if they've fallen for the claims the psychic has made about what they can do, and they're awed by the psychic's charisma and the surroundings that will have been purposely given a mystical air, then they'll often let their guard down and take the psychic into their confidence, telling them things about what's bothering them.
Some people who were very clear about the fact they weren't psychics have used the techniques psychics use and have impressed people with their accuracy, convincing them they were real psychics before they told them the truth.
Other techniques psychics can use to gain information they can pass off as having known all along, or to impress the customer or make them want to come back for more readings, can include:
That doesn't mean all psychics are deliberate frauds. They don't all use deliberate trickery such as making objects move in natural ways and claiming they're using the power of their mind to move them or it's being done supernaturally. Many just use the techniques of picking up clues from what the customer says and their body language, and making some guesses, and genuinely believe they're using a psychic gift. It would be wrong to say that no one ever genuinely does have one, because no one can be sure. But science has never found any evidence for psychic power really existing. And there have been former psychics who have said they eventually realised what they were really doing.
A lot of studies have been done into whether psychic phenomena exist for over 100 years. But no evidence that it works has ever been found. Some studies have at first seemed to show that things like clairvoyance, telepathy and the like really happen, but later it's been discovered that deliberate fraud took place. Either that, or the study was badly designed, so they got results that they thought were evidence of psychic phenomena, when really they were evidence of something entirely different and they didn't realise. For instance, things that allow people to cheat can be overlooked. Or the success rate a person could have purely by chance could be underestimated, so a higher success rate than that gets put down to genuine psychic ability when it isn't.
One of the first people to conduct experiments of telepathy and clairvoyance was called J B Rhine, in the 1930s. People had previously set out to debunk the claims of people calling themselves spiritualist mediums but who used trickery to make people think they were conjuring up the dead in séances. But this man had a laboratory in a university where he did experiments of psychic ability. He asked several people to try to tell him which of five symbols - a cross, a circle, a rectangle, a star or wavy lines - was on the concealed side of various cards he took from a pack. He compared the number of correct answers each person gave with the number he thought they could be expected to give if they were just guessing.
Sometimes it was telepathy he tried to test that way, by having someone looking at the image and trying to send it via thought waves to another person. Sometimes he tried to test clairvoyance, by putting a card face-down on the table without anyone having seen it and seeing if people could tell what it was.
He tested a lot of people, and concluded there was strong evidence that telepathy and clairvoyance existed. At first, what he'd done seemed like good scientific evidence, since it had been done under conditions that would supposedly eliminate the possibility of cheating. But as more details came to light about the tests, people began to discover there had been problems with it:
Some people who'd been tested seemed more gifted than others. But people began to suspect they were just better at cheating. It turned out that some of the people being tested had been allowed to shuffle and handle the cards themselves before the experiment, which would enable people good at looking for clues about what was where to spot them. One person in particular was good at doing that and had an impressive success rate, ... except when people other than the experimenter were watching.
Also, the cards weren't all manufactured to the highest quality, so an observant test subject could tell what some of them were by things like warped edges, spots on the backs, or other imperfections. The symbols on some of them could even be read through their backs under certain lighting conditions.
Also, there were questions about how effective shuffling is at really mixing up all the cards anyway. It can be easy to miss some parts of the pack or not to do that good a job so they're not in all that much of a different order from what they were before.
Because of the strong doubts over the reliability of those studies, they're not often mentioned nowadays as evidence for clairvoyance and telepathy. But no unquestionably strong evidence has ever been found by other studies either.
After Rhine's experiments, a set of experiments was done by a different person, mathematician G S Soal. They seemed to have been designed better. People claiming to have telepathic ability were tested to see if they could tell what a number of pictures were when someone tried to send them via their thoughts. At first, he failed to find any evidence of telepathy. A lot of people were disappointed. Then it was suggested that perhaps there was a bit of a delay in people picking up telepathic signals, so the pictures they thought they were being sent were really the ones sent the previous time. He looked and said he'd found a couple of people who were gifted after all. He tested them lots more times, and concluded that some people had telepathic ability after all. Because he had previously failed to find evidence of telepathic ability, people assumed he must be an honest unbiased researcher who really must have found evidence of it this time. For years not much could be said to challenge the conclusions of the research, since it seemed to have been designed well. It was considered strong evidence by many. But eventually it came to light that the mathematician had altered the records to make it look as if people were making a lot more correct guesses than could be expected by chance when they weren't really. Eventually, it was discovered beyond all doubt that the records had been altered.
Sometimes the design of an experiment seems to have been good and no obvious fraud has been committed. But one experiment on its own can't be seen as proof of anything, since there's always the possibility there was some kind of cheating, or there might have been mistakes in the design of the experiment after all. So experimenters need to explain in detail how their experiment was done, so others can try it. Only if the design of the experiment was indeed good so as to eliminate the possibility of cheating or mistakes, and if several others get similarly impressive results when they try it, can evidence of anything significant be said to have been found.
Surprising things happen sometimes, and it seems they would be so unlikely to happen by themselves that people can wonder if they were made to happen by a mysterious force.
One example is that chance events can be mistaken for significant things. For instance, sometimes when playing a board game, someone might will the dice to come down displaying a certain number, and get the number they wanted. That's bound to happen sometimes by chance, but it can seem like evidence of some kind of psychic power, especially if it happens more than once in a game.
Similarly, sometimes people will have a run of good luck in a game, and people can find it difficult to believe that random chance could produce such a run of good fortune, but actually it can. For instance, just by chance, someone who flips a coin ten times can get heads six or so times in a row.
Sometimes, people can be sure they can predict things, such as who's calling when someone phones them up. But if they experiment to see how accurate they are by writing down the name of the person ringing before they pick up the phone, they can soon discover their accuracy rate isn't really any more than can be expected by chance.
Sometimes some absolutely amazing coincidences happen, and people can find it hard to believe they can just have happened by chance. For instance, they might go away to a foreign country and discover they're sharing a hotel with their old best friend from school. But so many different things, from big to tiny, happen to people in their lives, that it is actually possible for amazing coincidences to happen just by chance. Say if you had ten thousand conversations in your lifetime. It might actually be stranger if none were with a person you'd met by a strange coincidence than that a few were, even if most of your conversations were with the same few people.
Also, while you could say the chances of any one amazing coincidence happening are remarkably small, such as that you'll move house and find yourself living next door to someone who was your next door neighbour in the house you grew up in, the chances of experiencing some amazing coincidence or other are quite a bit greater, since so many things happen to people in their lives that coincidences will happen by chance. And one of those amazing coincidences that do happen might well be moving next door to the person who was your neighbour when you were little.
There are lists of what are said to be amazing coincidences on the Internet that seem spooky, and it's difficult to believe they could have just happened; but don't automatically believe the facts in them are correct, because they can often be wrong.
Similar things can happen with premonitions. If someone has a dream about a disaster happening and soon that disaster happens, they can assume it was either a remarkable coincidence, or a premonition.
Again, considering the number of dreams each person has in a lifetime, it's likely some dreams will be about things that happen soon afterwards just by chance.
Also, it's common for people not to remember the details of dreams. So, for instance, if someone has a dream about being in a plane, and later that night they wake up with a scary sensation of falling, and then a few days later they hear about a plane crash happening, they can feel sure they recall having a premonition it would happen, because they only vaguely recall the details of the dream but can mistakenly become convinced through trying to recall it better with the plane crash on their mind that the dream was more true to the event than it really was.
People who say they often have premonitions can realise their dreams are less accurate than they thought they were if they start writing down all their dreams soon after they happened, before their memories of them have a chance to be distorted by what's in the news.
Also, there are certain topics that come up again and again in a person's dreams or day-dreams. A person might day-dream about a long-lost relative, and soon afterwards the relative phones them up. They might be surprised and think they must have had a premonition. But in reality, they might have often thought about long-lost relatives, which makes it less surprising that one should get in contact soon after they did. It doesn't show faulty reasoning on their part that they often day-dream about them and yet they can still think it's significant that they get the phone call straight after they do one day. People will simply forget most of the day-dreams they ever have, often as soon as they start doing something else. One that was followed up quickly by the person they were day-dreaming about getting in contact with them will be unusually memorable because of the surprise.
Alternatively, someone might be thinking of phoning someone they haven't spoken to for a while, and they're surprised when that very person phones them! They might conclude that something telepathic appears to be going on. But really, it might be that something's happened that makes both people think of each other and want to speak to each other. For instance, two ex-work colleagues who were friendly years before might start remembering each other and thinking it might be nice to speak to each other again after the company they worked for appears in the news one day. It may only appear briefly in the news and the story might not be dramatic, so the news might not stick in their minds; but it might start both of them thinking of each other without really making the connection as to why. So there isn't really an obvious reason when they phone each other, which makes it easier for them to come to the conclusion something telepathic's going on.
Another thing is that people can think they had a premonition of something when in reality their ordinary senses gave them the clues that it was going to happen. For instance, if someone goes to see an older relative, they might come away with an uneasy feeling because they didn't look their normal self, though the signs weren't obvious enough to be sure they definitely looked unwell. The feeling might niggle at them and invade their dreams, which might turn into nightmares about the person getting some kind of disease or being struck down by a heart attack or something. A few days later, that very thing might happen. They might be shocked, and it might seem to them that their nightmares must have been supernatural warnings of what would happen. But really, it was their own intuition, based on what they saw and the way their relative behaved, that really gave them the warning.
Or it could happen with a new relationship; they might have a dream warning them it's not a good thing to get into, they ignore it, and later it turns out to have been right, and they think it must have been a supernatural warning. But really, it could have been caused by little worries that were going on in the background of their mind, because their intuition was picking up on signs there was something wrong, while at the time they were enjoying themselves too much to want to take notice of any little niggles of anxiety.
Some dreams, or prophecies made by people who feel sure they have a supernatural gift for predicting the future, are so vague that after something dramatic happens, they or others can read significance into the prophecy that no one would have guessed it had before, and interpret it to be about it. This is what's happened to the prophecies of Nostradamus. They're so vague, it's impossible for anyone to know what they might be predicting before it happens. After something disastrous or significant in world events happens, people wonder whether certain prophecies of his predicted it, fitting what he said to what's happened. For instance, if he said there would be a big flash in the sky and then a disaster, they might at one time interpret it to have meant a space rocket that exploded, at another time a nuclear bomb, at another time a thunder storm where an important world figure got struck by lightning, and so on.
Apparently, Nostradamus himself admitted he made his predictions so vague that they couldn't possibly be understood until they were interpreted after an event and made to fit it.
So many people believe psychics can really do what they say they do that it's often taken as a given that it really is possible for some people. And in the media, people who say they have psychic power are sometimes interviewed about what they do, and what they say is just accepted as valid - it isn't questioned by the person writing the article to see if there are other possible explanations as to why what happened did happen. So it's no wonder a lot of people take it as a given that psychic ability exists.
Much of the media loves stories about what psychics do, because they can be sensationalist and exciting, so they're more likely to sell papers than stories about experiments that failed to find any genuine psychic ability. Similarly, they'll often feature a story about something exciting like claims that a psychic detective helped to solve a crime, but they won't so often give space in the story to someone who gives natural explanations for what seems to have happened, such as the psychic in reality just being good at persuasion and coaxing someone who was already a suspect to confess, or making a vague claim such as saying a missing child would be found near water, and afterwards claiming that had been a big clue, when in reality most places are near water. Details like that make stories less exciting.
To give an example of unequal media coverage, a university student in America once dropped a sealed envelope off at the office of the president of the university that he said contained a prophecy of an important event that would happen soon afterwards. He didn't say what the important event was, but said the envelope should be opened a week later, and when it was, the person who opened it would find details of something that would have just happened. When the envelope was opened a week later, it did contain a prediction of something that really had happened between the time the envelope was put there and the time it was opened. It was a plane crash where hundreds of people died. The supposed prophecy was detailed and fairly accurate.
When the student who'd dropped off the envelope was later interviewed for the media, he said he was a magician and what he'd done was a trick to promote his upcoming magic show, to prove that cunning and cleverness could achieve things that made people think something supernatural was happening. He'd gone to the office secretly and swapped the first envelope for another one that contained details of the plane crash after it happened.
Apparently, Almost twenty newspapers covered the story, but only one mentioned that he'd explained that he did a conjuring trick and it wasn't to do with psychic power after all.
People can assume that since they've read or heard about so many people who are convinced they've witnessed genuine psychic power there must be something in it, since after all, surely millions or thousands can't be wrong. But that isn't necessarily true, since a lot of people can be fooled by the same old tricks.
It isn't just newspapers that seem biased in favour of supernatural explanations for things; books can also be. After all, making things sound mysterious and sensational can sell more copies, meaning the author makes more money. But also, books of true stories of things that have happened to people can contain errors without the author knowing. If they've collected them from people who say they've had supernatural experiences, those people's stories might have started out a lot less impressive-sounding, but over time, they added more little bits when telling the story to others to make it sound more interesting, till by the time they tell the author of the book, it sounds much more impressive than it was at first.
A man posted on an Internet forum, saying that for some time he'd been scared his house was haunted and that there were demons harassing him. He said he'd been upset by the experience, though he now realised it could all possibly be explained by sleepwalking, or people moving his things around and then lying about it, and panic attacks, and extremely bad memory. But he wasn't convinced. He wanted explanations he could really find persuasive.
He said one of the most common things that happened was that important items would disappear no matter how carefully he put them away. He said things would disappear never to be seen again- often from taped-up boxes, especially when he was packing to move. He said that back in his 20s he had had a very good memory. He'd considered it almost photographic. He gave the example that his garage had been a mess, filled with all his Grandparents' things after they died, and also a lot of his own things, but he often amazed his friends because he could find anything in the garage by just going straight to it, just from memory. He said he was like that with all his papers and other things in the house as well; the house looked as if it was in a chaotic mess to others, but he didn't have a problem finding things at all; he just remembered where they all were with no problem.
He said he lived with his older brother, with whom he'd inherited the house when he was 17. They were both born-again Christians who believed lying was a sin, and he said his brother was so honest it seemed he was more honest than necessary, which is why he wouldn't believe the easy explanation that he was lying about things he did. And he said he couldn't put it down to a health problem either.
He said he and his brother weren't good at looking after the house at all, but every time he did clean one room, nothing from that room would vanish, but something important he kept in another room would disappear, even from drawers in his bedroom, which he wouldn't let anyone else in, not even the girlfriend he'd had at the time. He said that was the most common thing that happened, and it seemed to him that it was "tailor made to demoralize" him.
He said while they were moving house, things got much worse; he and his girlfriend had boxes and other heavy objects seemingly launch themselves at them several times. He said that once the papers were signed and the house was no longer his, things got much worse. They both felt as if there was a feeling of malevolence towards them in the air. They both once looked up the stairs together and saw nothing, but thought they could sense something, like pure hate formed out of the everyday shadows.
He said he lived in a place where there were no earthquakes or earth tremors, so he couldn't explain the boxes moving as being caused by those.
He said he hadn't started out by wanting to believe his house was haunted, but he thought that was the only conclusion he could come to after as many bad experiences over the years as he had.
He said he'd had writing disappear from the pages he wrote it on, even recently. In fact he said it happened every few months at least. He would write a phone number on a page of his Planner; someone would even see him write it down, along with other notes. But days or weeks later when he needed to look at the information, that part of the page was blank; there weren't even indentations from a pen writing on the paper.
He said he knew they were All trivial things in themselves, except the boxes launching themselves at them, and he knew it didn't sound like much to get scared about, but when things like that kept happening, he felt sure something horribly malevolent must be around, attempting to drive him to despair.
He said he wouldn't be able to bare it if that really was the case; if he had to believe there are invisible forces manipulating objects and events, then surely human life is hopeless. So he was desperate for natural explanations for what went on that would reassure him. He said he knew what had happened such as things disappearing and turning up elsewhere could easily be dismissed as his own forgetfulness about where he'd put them or something, but he wanted something really convincing, because thoughts that demons were around messing around with him were frightening and upsetting.
A few people suggested explanations for what might have really happened:
One said that even people with very good memories lose things. Also, people tend not to remember things perfectly, so the man's memory of having a photographic memory before he started losing things may have been inaccurate - he may have lost things occasionally before, but only when he started putting the losses down to a sinister cause did they seem significant enough to stick in his mind.
The person also commented that stress can cause a person's memory to function less effectively, and can make a person's mind less clear. Both of those things could mean a person was more likely to put things down and afterwards not remember where they'd put them; they could put something where they wouldn't normally put it, and then forget where they'd put it. Also, stress makes people focus their minds on the negative things that are going on and ignore the positive. So if he found fourteen things where he expected them to be but couldn't find the fifteenth, he'd stress about that, rather than calming himself with the thought that at least most things were in order.
The person then said,
I have had any number of boxes fall on me when I was moving, but I credit those to either the load in the box slowly shifting until it reached a tipping point; or, something under the box (directly or lower in the stack) shifting; or my cat bumped it; or, the vibration of my passing near it set it off. I've also had the washing machine going into spin cycle make things fall over; and of course, if you're close to a street, a large truck going by can set off a mild vibration.Others asked if it was possible the man's brother or girlfriend had been messing around with him, moving things, or telling him things like boxes had moved on their own when he wasn't there.
These are not dismissals of your concerns, but rather, suggestions of mundane explanations that--due to the emotional context of the time--you may not have noticed.
Others pointed out that moving house, especially moving out of a house that had belonged to loved ones after they'd died, especially if there was a suspicion they might disapprove of it being sold, was bound to be an emotional time, and moving to a new house would likely seem strange, with different acoustics and so on. An imagination already fired up and stressed by thoughts of demons in the house might quickly put sinister interpretations on things like what was causing feelings that it wouldn't under normal circumstances. Once you'd become scared a few things were being caused by something paranormal, it would be easier to start feeling scared that other things were. And if a girlfriend had been scared into believing it too, she might do the same thing. It's easy for people to start scaring each other more and more by thinking spooky things are going on. Someone said they'd watched a group of ghost-hunters "scare each other silly" about what might be lurking somewhere.
Some had more suggestions about what could have caused the boxes to move, such as boxes filled crookedly. One said,
Usually when stuff tips it has been badly stacked and it's the physical presence of people nearby that supplies the last bit of vibration needed to tip it. A large object (or a stack of magazines) in a poorly packed box slides or rolls, causing a domino effect and flipping the box several feet. If you are feeling tense to start with, that can be scary.
One poster quipped that if spooks could shift loads, we wouldn't need forklift trucks or power stations.
As far as disappearing phone numbers, if I were in your position trying to get to the bottom of something like this, I would no longer write anything down on a page of a planner where there is even the slightest chance that it IS in there somewhere, on a page other than the one you THINK you wrote it down on. I would start writing things down on the back of, say, ONE business card or some other place that I had full control of and always putting it back in the exact same place in my wallet. Now, if you write things down on this ONE surface and it disappears, OK I would have to then grant you that that's very weird. But that might be something to try as an experiment.
Another suggested the man numbered all the pages and made sure not to leave any blank space, putting a line at the end of each page when it was full to signify it was finished. That would be better than putting things on random pages when it could be easy to forget which one it was on. If blank spaces appeared in it after the page was certified as full, then he'd have to start thinking something weird was going on; but they probably wouldn't. It was suggested he scan or photograph the page when it was done, and then compare the scanned/photographed versions with the originals at the end of the year to see if anything was missing. He might be reassured that nothing was.
The worried poster thanked people for their explanations of how things had possibly happened and said,
Did my first 'test' today. Here's what happened; my place has these stupid 'jalissy' windows which you open with stupid metal cranks that are always falling off. One fell off right in front of me today, slipped out of my hand...and disappeared before my eyes, without making a sound. It was like the spirit world asserted itself again, snatched something boldly from right in front of me.Another poster said they once lost a very important spring from a very expensive device, which would never work again without it and it couldn't be replaced! Stressful. They looked everywhere for it and couldn't find it. ...
I explored a bit and found only two possible places where it could have landed without a sharp 'clank';
1) the waste basket which I searched thoroughly to no avail (and I mean THOROUGHLY. Ugh)
2) There's a hole where the water supply line comes through, a few sizes bigger than the pipe. The gap is filled in with steel wool (this place has had a succession of amateur not-so-handymen including myself) It COULD HAVE missed the pipes and hit the steel wool and thus not made a sound. I searched the hole with a mirror and flashlight.
(Had to mount an all-out search for the flashlight; it wasn't where I remembered putting it, which my mind wants to interpret as another 'attack' So I mounted an all-out search and found it close to the spot where I'd put it. So I got a secondary debunking out of this mess)
I couldn't find the crank anywhere in the steel-wool hole. It vanished.
OK, what would a rational man do? I'm no longer prepared to accept the 'mischievous malevolent Imp' explanation for these things.
So I tried to re-create the event. Pulled an identical crank off another window and determined that if it could fall into the hole WITHOUT A SOUND, missing the two metal pipes within the first 100 tries, that would prove it was within the realm of possibility.
It happened on the second try.
It made a dull muffled thud, not a bright clank from metal-on-metal. I searched for it with a flashlight, but it's gone. The first one could very well have made a muffled thud, since I was moving clumsily at the same instant and my own sound likely drowned it out.
I'd successfully re-created the event, within reasonable parameters! Debunked that sucker to my satisfaction!
So I'm out two window-cranks (which cost a couple dollars each) and I've gotta replace the steel wool cause it's soft and rusty- small price to pay for a healthy mindset. I'd never have thought to try and "re-create" such an event were it not for this forum and podcasts, like Skeptic's Guide and Skeptoid.
But the next day, they found it in their shirt pocket.
Someone else said,
I did a similar thing to test my own confirmation bias. As a bookdealer, I have thousands of books in my house. It seemed that I only needed to touch a book or even read the title for it to sell. So I started a loose count of the number of books I touched, noticed or otherwise became aware of in a day. It was roughly 200. The number of books that would be magically sold? About one a week. So it was about one in 1500. Darn good odds. Not magical at all.
Which also explained why purposely touching the expensive ones didn't lead to instant wealth.
Another poster congratulated the man who was now testing things instead of jumping to the conclusion demons were doing sinister things in his home, and said,
(I recall doing the same myself with a small screw, only to lose two more in the attempt. The original turned up in the washing machine filter- must have hung on my shirt somewhere.)
Of course you don't need to do this sort of thing every time something vanishes. Once your default mindset shifts from "Spooky" to "annoying" you will just let stuff like this go. (And then step on the missing object in the dark , in your bare feet.
The worried poster said he found the screw from the crank that fell off on the bedroom floor the next day.
There's a condition called sleep paralysis, where people get scary visions of demons and other nasty things while they're half asleep. They can seem so real it's easy to believe they're supernatural, especially because they cause genuine sensations of fear, and other sensations such as being unable to move and having a weight on the chest. But what's really going on is that the person's waking up from sleep or just dropping off, and they're partly aware of what's going on around them, but there are chemicals in the brain that paralyse a person when they're asleep to stop them acting out their dreams since that could be dangerous, and they're working for longer than they should be. It doesn't mean something's seriously wrong, but it's scary. So the person is conscious of not being able to move, and any dreams they have are likely to take on a sinister air because that's frightening. There might be more going on also, but those are the basics.
Schizophrenia gives people hallucinations they find difficult to understand. It's perhaps no wonder many sufferers come to feel sure something supernatural must be going on.
Sometimes, people can be sure God's speaking to them because they have a brain injury that's causing them to have strange visions and hear voices. There's a type of epilepsy called temporal lobe epilepsy that can cause people to have hallucinations, that can seem supernatural to anyone who doesn't know the brain can cause them, and can also cause them to have sensations they can interpret as religious experiences. For instance, a BBC documentary once featured a woman with the condition who was convinced she'd given birth to Jesus.
It's thought certain religious leaders may well have suffered from the disorder, including Ellen White, one of the founders of Seventh Day Adventism, who received a serious head injury when an older girl threw a stone at her when she was nine. She was unconscious for a few weeks, and when she began to recover, started to exhibit traits that doctors nowadays think of as signs of temporal lobe epilepsy, though at the time medical knowledge wasn't sufficiently advanced for such a diagnosis to be made and people around her who shared her religious ideas - many of which were common in her day - interpreted her seizures as visions and called her a prophet. She herself concluded she was a messenger from God after at first being troubled by her symptoms.
It's thought by some that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, might have suffered the same thing.
People can genuinely feel sure they've experienced the presence of God when in reality they were feeling something non-supernatural for other reasons as well. For instance, people who meditate deeply can start to feel one with the universe, as if they don't exist as an individual but are blended in a blissful state with everything else. They can interpret it as a great spiritual experience. What's really happening is that the parts of the brain responsible for equipping people with a sense of their place as an individual and their whereabouts in time and space temporarily shut down, till they stop meditating. It would be pretty horrendous if they didn't start working properly at the end of meditation, because people would find it much more difficult to move around, not being sure where their foot ended and the floor began, or where a chair ended and where their body began. In a state of deep relaxation, feeling one with the universe can be blissful; but it wouldn't be for anyone who had to live like it all the time. The parts of the brain that cause the feeling do stop doing that at the end of meditation though.
Also, the two sides of the brain are in communication with each other. Apparently, sometimes, brain signals aren't in unison with each other, for instance sometimes in times of stress or disease, and one side of the brain senses the other side but interprets it as a separate entity. Anyone experiencing that will feel as if there's another presence with them.
Near death experiences can seem to be striking evidence of God's existence and care for humanity. But certain drugs, in particular one called ketamine, have been known to mimic or cause many of the sensations associated with them, as well as hallucinations that have seemed to be very much like the things people describe when they have them. In fact, it's said there are natural brain chemicals much like that drug that get released at times when the body is being deprived of what it needs to live such as oxygen.
There are other possible natural explanations for the perceptions people have. For instance, the perception of being in a tunnel could be induced by failing vision that fails from the outside inwards, the view getting narrower and narrower as it does till it disappears altogether.
That was the view of a man who did a study to try to stop pilots losing consciousness when they were subjected to huge gravitational forces in advanced fighter planes. It was discovered that as they lost consciousness, many of them began to experience the things people having near-death experiences report, which got more detailed the longer they lost consciousness for. When the loss of consciousness was induced gradually by just a gradual increase in gravitational forces, the near death-like experience came on more gradually. Pilots reported feeling sensations of peace and serenity when their consciousness returned. The man doing the study believed it had to do with certain brain chemicals that were released when they went unconscious.
The brain can do all kinds of strange things. Some brain injuries can cause people to mistake fantasies or dreams they have for reality. So they later have false memories of things they think happened, some very strange. I read one man's account of some strange things he thought and said after he had a stroke. He described them on an Internet forum. He said one thing he was convinced of in the early days was that he'd been in a racing car rather than a hospital bed. He even got upset one day because he thought the characters in a television soap opera he'd been watching were controlling him by means of a string they'd attached to his penis. The nurses had put a television on by him and he was watching it while going in and out of consciousness. Another time, he was watching the new American president being sworn in on television like that, and became convinced he was the new president. He even asked his daughter how it felt to be the president's daughter.
Belief in witchcraft still thrives in parts of the world where the vast majority of the people aren't scientifically educated, and where things happen that many people find difficult to explain in a natural way because they haven't got a lot of the knowledge about why a lot of bad things happen that Western-educated people have, and easy access to things that can protect and heal them, such as drugs that can fight illness, nearby hospitals where good medical treatment can be almost taken for granted, weather forecasting that can warn them of severe weather events, and so on.
In the absence of those things, and where superstition traditionally thrives, and where there are in fact people who do their best to harness supernatural power for their own ends, people can become paranoid that spirits are being sent to attack them when something bad happens.
Just as in medieval times in Europe, when people had no decent healthcare and science was in its infancy, people suspected of witchcraft were killed, people are still killed today in some countries such as India and some African countries because they're accused of causing illness or other disasters through witchcraft. Governments don't do that, but groups within the general public do. It tends to happen in countries where millions of the poorest are illiterate so a lot of information just isn't available to them. They simply don't know about germs causing disease and drugs that can cure it. They can become fearful of being cursed by relatives or others, and agonise over who has cursed them when they become ill.
Progress towards modern healthcare is sometimes impeded by witchdoctors; some people who've set up clinics to help people in developing countries have found themselves at risk because they were seen as competition by witch doctors/traditional healers who felt sure their customers would go to the clinics instead and their profit and prestige in the community would vastly diminish.
Still, progress has been made.
One reason belief in spirits originated and became widespread was probably because things would happen that people simply couldn't explain in terms of any human having done them, and yet some being seemed to be activly causing them. People would become ill without having been injured or eaten anything poisonous, so there didn't seem to be a good reason for it. Storms would suddenly roar down and overturn boats and then go away again, and there wouldn't seem to be a good reason why. It really would seem as if there was a malevolent force deliberately doing those things. People would have been desperate to do something about it to prevent disaster, so they would have tried to appease those unpredictable and malevolent forces they thought must exist. Believing there was a chance of calming their anger would have given them hope that they had some control over what would otherwise have often seemed hopeless and frightening situations. So the belief would have become popular.
But for situations that really did seem hopeless, a big sacrifice was often thought to be needed, so the killing of precious livestock and even children in human sacrifice rituals began.
People started believing there must be hierarchies of spirits where some were more powerful than others, because some illnesses were worse than others, or in some regions people often got worse ones or certain ones more often, as if there must be nastier spirits living there. For instance, mosquitos are particularly attracted to certain habitats, so people living nearby to them are more likely to get malaria than those living elsewhere, but it's only fairly recently been discovered that malaria's caused by a parasite carried by mosquitos.
Then when people ate plants that grow wild and contain hallucinogens, they would have seen very strange things that weren't part of their normal world that would have convinced some they must be seeing spirits. And they might have become convinced that some of the spirits were evil especially where the plants contained substances that harmed them soon after they'd had the hallucinations. It might have seemed to them that they must have been attacked by evil spirits who at first gave them a glimpse into the spirit world and then made them pay for it by doing something nasty to them, or who gave them an all-round nasty experience.
It would have been impossible to have come up with a scientific explanation for what was happening when the technology and research into how the brain can be manipulated and the properties of plants simply wasn't available. After all, if we didn't know any different because we've been brought up to believe what we've always been told about these things having physical explanations, it would seem counter-intuitive to us to imagine that a mere little plant could cause people to imagine there were giants standing in front of them, or streams of bright colours moving over the surrounding scenery, or voices speaking without anyone being there, and so on.
People would have become even more convinced that spirits exist when conmen decided to make a name for themselves by pretending they could control the spirits or that they had supernatural powers, and used trickery to deceive people.
Then belief in spirits would have been passed down the generations, and people would have started believing in them because they were taught from an early age that they exist. Children just assume that adults know best and know what they're talking about. A lot of the time what adults say is true, and in fact necessary for children to believe without question, such as that eating meat before it's been cooked could make you seriously ill or kill you. So in most cases, children's lack of skepticism about what adults say protects them. After all, a child experimenting to see if what the adults say is true could lead to disaster. But their trust in what adults say can sometimes unfortunately lead them to believe harmful or untrue things. Children usually won't think there's a need to distinguish between what's true and false about what their carers and other authority figures who they trust say.
And if they've been led to believe something from an early age, they'll likely also believe it as an adult, and pass the belief on to their own children.
But belief in spirits isn't all that different from the truth, in a way. In the West, we simply take it for granted that germs cause illness; we're raised having been taught that from an early age, so it just seems obvious to us. But it's only fairly recently that people have learned that germs cause illness; as late as the 1850s, there were cholera epidemics in London, for example, and there were theories going around in the scientific community that bad air was the cause.
And it's no wonder people took so long to realise germs cause disease. Really, it's counter-intuitive to think such tiny teeny things as germs might be able to cause horrendous health problems. If someone was told about it as an adult, having never learned about germs beforehand when they were little when they just accepted what adults told them as truth, many would likely think it was implausible. It actually makes more sense for someone who knows nothing of the science behind the knowledge about germs to think illnesses would be caused by beings with more obvious power who have fairly sophisticated minds so they know what they're doing.
People who began to believe spirits were the cause of illness were actually perfectly correct in thinking something generally invisible was the cause; but they were mistaken in their belief about what that normally invisible thing was. They thought there must be beings with minds and wills that would harm people or protect them, and sometimes needed appeasing to get them on side, or could sometimes be incited to harm others, perhaps just because they were good or evil and liked doing such things.
There isn't any evidence that spirits don't exist. However, people need to be very cautious about attributing things to spirits, because a lot of harm has been done when people have claimed spirits were causing problems there was no evidence they really were causing. Pastors can even diagnose moody teenagers as being demon-possessed, when the normal increased hormonal activity that happens in the teenage years or unhappiness with life circumstances is a far more likely cause of the behaviour most of the time. People can respect and trust those pastors so much they don't question them; but they should really be asking themselves what evidence there is that the pastor's correct, and whether it's reliable, and also what alternative explanations there might be for the person's behaviour.
In some parts of the world, many children are thrown out of their homes and even badly injured by their families because their parents come to believe they're possessed by demons and they're causing family disasters by unleashing them on them. Some pastors make a lot of money by declaring that certain children are possessed by demons and offering to get them delivered, for a price. Parents who don't understand about how illness is caused, who have had a run of bad luck and are suspicious that there must be a malevolent force causing it rather than analysing the real reasons or putting it down to sheer misfortune, or who simply have so much respect for their pastor they believe everything he says without question, can disown children they come to believe are evil. If the majority of people in an area believe children can get possessed by demons and turn into evil-doing machines that cause the family all kinds of harm, it will be natural for people in the area to grow up just accepting that people around them know what they're talking about and that children really can do that.
And children can be increasingly disowned when the parents have an added emotional incentive to believe a pastor's right about their child being demon-possessed or to come to that conclusion themselves, because the child's a burden on the thinly-stretched family finances or a strain on the patience of their parents, so disowning them is convenient.
The climate of fear that belief in witchcraft causes isn't helped at all by people who make efforts to harness the power of spirits for their own purposes. Terrible beliefs developed about how the life force in living things, or people only just killed, could be harnessed by others and they would bring them good fortune. They thought life force had to be a powerful thing if it gave people life and energy, so they thought if they killed people, they themselves could have it by eating them or storing their body parts.
Then people began to believe certain body parts could be used as powerful charms that would benefit people, for instance by bringing them business success, and could even be sold for lots of money to others who wanted the benefits. Many people who heard they could be used that way accepted the belief unquestioningly and wanted that power themselves. It became a reason for harming and killing people. In some parts of the world, people starting businesses will still sometimes keep human body parts in the hope that they will bring them prosperity.
So in parts of the world where belief in witchcraft is common, a climate of fear, suspicion and hostility can be created. When someone dies of an illness, their grieving family can wonder who it was who put the curse on them and sent spirits to attack them. People who come under suspicion are killed even today in some parts of the world.
The situation's made worse by witchdoctors who claim to have special supernatural powers to find out who's causing tragedies through witchcraft. They can gain money and prestige by claiming they know who's causing the trouble and that they can solve the problem.
People with old scores to settle also take advantage of the situation by accusing people of witchcraft and whipping up hostility against them in the hope they'll be harmed or killed. Business owners can get rid of rivals that way. Also, old family members who are becoming a burden can be conveniently got rid of that way.
That's not to say that the majority of people in the area will do that; it might be only a small minority who will ever be involved in witchcraft accusations. But still it's a problem.
In some parts of the world today, healthcare isn't readily available because it's too expensive for ordinary people and hospitals are too far away to get to easily; and sometimes where people have set up health clinics offering free healthcare that's easy for people to access, they've been opposed by witchdoctors/traditional healers in the area who have tried to discredit or even harm them to protect their own profits and prestige. So people won't always welcome new healthcare facilities, and aren't always quick to give up the belief that spirits cause illness and that it can be treated by calling on good spirits to defeat the bad ones or appeasing the bad ones.
They can use plants to heal also, but some believe that the reason they work is because they contain good spirits, or they think that in order for them to work properly, rituals have to be done to please the spirits as well. Some believe the reason Western medicine works is because the spirits in it are more powerful.
A man on an Internet forum said he'd worked with a community in China for years. He was from Canada. They were a minority community living in a remote region up in the Himalayas. There were no roads in most of the villages where they lived; transport had to be on foot or by horseback. And most had no running water or electricity. Several years earlier, he'd started a non-profit organisation, partly to try to get them better health care. They'd never heard about germs causing disease or diseases passed down through the genes or any such thing. They firmly believed in the supernatural, and most assumed that when people got ill, angry spirits were causing the problem. So they thought the remedy was to appease those spirits. Many died of entirely preventable or curable diseases. They lived far away from a hospital; the nearest one was two days away on horseback. The man on the forum set out to try to convince them to go to hospital or see a doctor anyway, rather than visiting their local priest/shaman when they were ill. But they weren't easy to convince. Most refused to go.
He said when he was first faced with that situation, he assumed that the ones who listened and went to hospital were the smart ones, the critical thinkers who were prepared to use their minds and not just go along with what the others thought. And he assumed that the ones who wouldn't take that trip to hospital when they were ill but instead relied on mystical mumbo-jumbo from the local religious figure were the stupid ones. It took him a while to realise how wrong he was, and how much his wrongness had damaged the efforts of his organisation.
He realised how wrong his assumptions were when he realised just why many of those people weren't quick to obey him and go to hospital when he said it was better. For one thing, travelling on horseback or on foot for days when seriously ill was uncomfortable to say the very least. For another, being treated in hospital was so expensive that many just couldn't afford it. Even fairly minor medical conditions cost more than many could afford to have treated, since their incomes were low. If they were going to try to find a way to get there anyway and brave the journey, they were going to have to have a good reason to do it. Most didn't think the evidence he'd presented to them was anything like clear proof that it was worth the money and effort.
The evidence they saw was that most people who went to hospital died. That was because most people who did go didn't do so till they were seriously ill, when everything else they tried hadn't worked, so they were much harder to treat, - those who even arrived there and weren't killed partly by the strain of the journey, or died on the way because they were so near death's door when they started out they couldn't make it. The shaman seemed to have a much higher success rate, since he treated both people who were seriously ill and those not so seriously ill, so some would die but a lot would get better on their own, and people would assume it was the shaman's intervention that had cured them, since no one was too keen to test the idea that they would get better on their own without any intervention at all for fear they wouldn't.
So basically, the evidence the people saw was that a large majority of the people who went to hospital died, whereas a smaller percentage of those who went to the shaman did. So they didn't see any reason to trust that hospital treatment was actually better for people.
So the people the man had assumed were the stupid ones were actually behaving more skeptically than the ones he'd assumed were skeptics of the supernatural - the ones who went to hospital. He started assuming that things were actually the reverse of what he'd assumed they were to begin with, - that those who went to hospital were the ones who'd believe anything, rather than the ones who relied on the superstitions of their community. He'd previously had a stereotypical notion of what a critical thinker was in his head, assuming it was a person who rejected superstition and then looked for evidence for things that was of a more scientific nature. He had to rethink his prejudices, and when he did, he realised that it isn't what you believe that makes you a critical thinker or someone liable to believe what they're told without question; it's how people get to believe what they do that counts, even if their skeptical faculties lead them to believe something wrong such as the idea that angry spirits cause disease, because there seems to be most evidence for it. They're not irrational; they simply haven't got enough information to reach a correct conclusion.
He came to believe that the people he'd assumed were the stupid ones were actually the skeptics, waiting for him and his team to provide more evidence of the truth of their claims that hospital treatment was better, beyond the rather flimsy evidence he'd given them until then; all he'd done was to tell them hospital treatment was better and try to convince them by telling a few anecdotes of people who'd been to the hospital and got cured. Well, how were the listeners supposed to be sure it was the hospital treatment that had cured them and they wouldn't have got better anyway, or the cure hadn't happened before when they went to see the shaman but it just took a while to kick in and did so at around the same time they went to hospital? So they felt they needed more evidence than just stories and the insistence of some stranger who'd come to help out their community. Yet he treated those who wanted more evidence before they'd believe what he said like the "stupid" ones, the ones who'd believe anything and couldn't weigh up evidence properly. And anyone's going to be offended when they're treated like that, so they would stop listening to him altogether after that.
When he realised what he was doing wrong, he made a big change in the way he approached things. He realise he needed to provide more evidence that hospital treatment worked before he could expect skeptical people to believe him. So his organisation started offering to pay for hospital treatment for those who were seriously ill with things the shaman didn't have a good track record of appearing to cure. If more people who went to the hospital got cured than people who went to the shaman, that would eventually be proof that hospital treatment did work better, when enough people had been cured there for a decent comparison to be able to be made.
People's belief that spirits exist and can cause genuine physical things to happen have been made firmer by a number of things. People can believe the accounts of people they know and trust who swear to have actually seen them in operation. But though those people can genuinely believe they have, they might have been fooled by some very convincing trickery. There are lots of ways conmen can deceive people. Here are just a few:
Those are just a few examples of the tricks that can be played that can convince people they've genuinely seen supernatural power in action when they haven't.
But it isn't just attempts to con people that can convince some that they've truly seen supernatural things.
For example, memory isn't totally reliable. False memories can be created easily in some people. Suggestion under hypnosis is one of the main ways it's done, but not the only way it can happen.
For instance, if someone in a country where belief that children can leave their bodies at night and go wandering in the woods together to cast spells actually sees children playing in the trees as darkness is falling, they might worry about what they're up to. The children might even be playing a game about witchcraft so the adult might overhear things that concern them. They might worry about it more and more over the next few days, imagining more and more scary possibilities. Because it's on their mind, they might dream vividly about the children, and the dream might involve them actually doing witchcraft. In a country where so many things are attributed to the supernatural, they might be convinced the dream was a sign from a higher power telling them the children really were up to something bad. So they might become more and more convinced that something terrible really did happen.
Over time, when things become more hazy in their memory, they might forget the details of the real course of events, but something about the incident will be firmly imprinted on their mind and bring back unpleasant emotions because of all the anxiety they felt about it at the time. So looking back later, they might be genuinely convinced that they really must have seen children doing witchcraft.
Then they might tell others, and because others think of them as trustworthy, those others might believe them and pass on stories to their acquaintances about someone they know who really did see children in the woods doing witchcraft. Some might add little details to the story to make it more interesting, because they enjoy telling a good story and having the interest of the audience. Because they themselves are trusted, people can believe what they say, and more and more people can become convinced that children really are doing witchcraft in the woods.
Astrologers claim to be able to tell a lot about a person and their future from the position of the sun, moon and planets at the time of their birth. There are problems with that idea. Here are a few things some people have pointed out:
Why would it be the time of birth and not the time of conception that determines a person's destiny and personality? The implication is that they're protected from being influenced during all the time they're in the womb. It's been remarked That that must mean that the great forces emanating from the sky that are so powerful they can have an influence on a baby from all that way away are blocked from doing so by the thin layer of flesh and skin that surround the mother's womb. And it's been joked that if that's the case, would it be possible to shield a baby born at a bad astrological time from those influences by immediately surrounding them with a thin cubicle made of steak till the charts were more in their favour?
Critics of astrology have made several other observations:
It's claimed that astrology is an ancient art proven accurate over centuries long ago. But a few of the planets used in calculations today weren't discovered then. Pluto's thought to be very significant by some astrologers nowadays, but it wasn't discovered till 1930. Does that mean all the horoscopes done before that were inaccurate because they didn't take it into account? And now many scientists no longer consider it a planet, have many astrologers declassified it as a major influence on people's lives so the calculations of astrologers through much of the 20th century were wrong instead?
In fact, a lot of astrologers disagree with each other on what to use in their calculations and what means what.
One thing astrologers disagree over is exactly what the force is that has such an amazing influence over people. Some think it's gravity, some think it's tidal force and some magnetism. It's been worked out that the obstetrician who delivers the child has six times the gravitational pull of Mars and about two thousand billion times its tidal force. So why don't obstetricians have a far greater influence on a baby's personality, simply by being there? They might have a lot less mass than Mars, but are a whole lot closer.
Some astrologers think it's an unknown force that has the astrological influence. But why wouldn't distance have any effect on it? Astrologers think planets have the same influence no matter how far away they move. Most forces get weaker with distance. If distance genuinely doesn't have any effect on astrology, why limit the calculations to planets inside our own solar system? What if planets millions of miles away all over other solar systems are having an effect on us? If they are, how could astrologers' charts ever be correct, since they only chart the influence of the planets in our own solar system?
These questions could be embarrassing for many astrologers.
Astrology has been tested by scientists, psychologists and the like, and it's been found that it just doesn't work:
Apparently a psychologist called Bernard Silverman looked at the birth dates of 2,978 couples who were getting married and 478 who were getting divorced in the state of Michigan. It's common for astrologers to think they can predict which astrological signs will be compatible or incompatible in personal relationships. Silverman compared such predictions to the actual records and found no evidence they had any significance.
A lot of astrologers claim that a person's Sun sign has a lot to do with his or her choice of career, and give careers advice based on what they calculate from astrological charts. But physicist John McGervey at Case Western Reserve University looked at biographies and birth dates of six thousand politicians and seventeen thousand scientists to see if far more people in those professions had some star signs than others. He found there were no more with some star signs than others - no more difference than could be expected by chance. The star signs didn't have any significance after all.
Some time ago astronomers Culver and Ianna tracked the published predictions of well-known astrologers and astrological organizations for five years. Out of more than three thousand specific predictions (including many about politicians, film stars, and other famous people), only about ten per cent came true. That many would come true by chance.
Lots of other tests have been done that have found astrology doesn't work.
More than sixty Thousand people in India fled a town once because they heard that some astrologers had predicted it would be hit by a cyclone and floods because there would be an unusual planetary formation on that day. Scientists and other astrologers said the predictions were nonsense; but so seriously is astrology taken by many people there that a rumour caused tens of thousands to panic.
No disaster happened in the end.
Many people also panicked in India when some astrologers announced that a period coming up would be a bad time to marry. A lot of them changed their wedding dates. Astrology is taken to be a guide for daily living for a lot of people there.
But even in the West, some people have been known in recent decades to take astrology incredibly seriously. In the 1980s, President Reagan was said to arrange speeches only with the advice of an astrologer, who is even said to have influenced government foreign policy!
Cults aren't just religious; they can also give people the promise of being with others who are dedicated to a cause they persuade them is an important non-religious one, such as the promotion of someone's ideas about far-fetched cures for diseases, for example. But a lot of them have to do with religion or spirituality.
They often attract people who are idealistic and seeking to do something important with their lives, or people who've just suffered something and are too stressed to think as critically as they might otherwise, who can be reeled in by the impression they get that others can give them answers and they can be where a lot of people care about them. Also of course, some people are in cults because they've been brought up in them.
A lot of false beliefs will fade if people are around others who hold different beliefs so they can weigh up the merits of their own against other people's. Isolation can prevent that happening, and it's one tactic cults use to keep followers, preventing them from getting hold of information that discredits the cult or contradicts its beliefs, sometimes by trying to discourage people from seeing their families, and sometimes by saying things that make them fearful of questioning the cult's teaching, such as scaring them by warning them it's satanic to question the teaching.
Also, cults often demand so much of their members' time that they simply haven't usually got time to talk in-depth with friends, as they do things to supposedly promote the good cause the cult wants to promote, whether that be attracting more followers so they too can be "saved", asking for money for a supposed good cause related to the cult, or something else.
Cults use other tactics to stop people examining the information they teach with a critical mind so they can control them:
One is depriving them of sleep by asking them to go to a lot of teaching talks and meetings, and again giving them a lot of work to do, so they end up too busy and not in a fit state in any case to think at the top of their form. That way they can more easily be influenced by people who tell them what to believe, because they're not thinking it through enough to realise what flaws are in it.
An organisation or group attempting to brainwash members can also be very nice to them sometimes in an attempt to encourage them to stay and feel a sense of belonging. They can be affectionate to them but harshly criticise the outside world, which can cause the hearers to feel even more akin to the group and alienated from outsiders, especially if they know they themselves will fall under the disapproval of the leaders and other group members if they show signs of doing the things being criticised, which might include trivial things blown out of proportion. The members can end up feeling a sense of belonging And a strong bond with the group that they don't want to lose, and a fear of the disapproval of fellow members and leaders if they don't conform.
Cults can discourage members from meeting former friends from the "corrupt" world who might turn them away from the "correct" teaching. They can further discourage people from thinking for themselves and evaluating cult teaching by inducing fear about asking questions, for instance by insisting that those who question the teaching and authority of the leaders are in danger of going to hell. At the same time, they can encourage members by promising them rewards for conformity to the group and its teaching, such as salvation and gaining some kind of special favour in the group.
It's not just cults people need to be wary of when it comes to religion. Some Christian churches and other religious groups are run in an abusive way and people are scared to challenge the authority of the leader because they fear some kind of retribution, either hell, being ostracised by the group, or something else.
Also, it shouldn't be automatically assumed that anything you get told in a religious group about something supernatural having happened is true. People can be mistaken; they can be passing on a story they heard that wasn't actually true or that had a natural explanation unbeknownst to the person who told them the tale; they can be mistaking a coincidence for something supernatural, or they could be trying to trick or con you, perhaps to get your respect and even your money. In fact, money-making through promising miracles is a common tactic of televangelists and similar influential people.
Also, people can lie for what they consider honourable reasons. A man on an Internet forum once said that when another person would tell him they'd experienced a miracle, for instance if a man said he was talking about Jesus to a Chinese man who didn't speak English very well and suddenly he found himself talking in a language he didn't know and the Chinese man understood him perfectly, he would tell others about the miracle, only he'd say it happened to him, not some other person.
He did that for a few reasons: He was among Christians who assumed that miracles would be bound to happen to you if you were godly; if they didn't happen, how godly you really were could be suspect. Also, he thought repeating it would bring glory to God, but he didn't want people to ask how he knew it was really true. If he said it happened to himself, they couldn't do that without accusing him of lying.
He knew Christians aren't supposed to lie, but he thought they were only little white lies, and for the glory of God after all.
Twice, both at summer camp and Bible college, he brought the subject up, among "good Christians", and almost all the Christians he was with admitted to doing exactly the same thing, passing off miracles other people had told them about as their own. They all agreed it wasn't very serious as sins went. After all, they told the stories completely believing a miracle had happened; they just changed one small detail, saying it had happened to them.
It didn't seem to occur to most people, though it did occur to him, that if there were a lot of people passing off the miracles other people told them about as their own, what if the people they heard about them from were doing exactly the same thing? Perhaps the description of a miracle got passed on from one person to another dozens of times, and many of the people it was passed to told others about it, often only changing one small detail, that is, saying it happened to them, not to someone else. Who could know whether the accounts were true to begin with? So he began to doubt claims of miracles.
In fact, he started to doubt the supernatural even existed, and eventually became an atheist. He'd had experiences that he had thought were genuinely supernatural, such as praying about something several times when he was under stress and needed to make a difficult decision but didn't know what to decide, and eventually hearing a voice in his head telling him what to do, accompanied by a feeling of peace. He had assumed the voice was the voice of God and the peace was supernatural. But he began to doubt that when he studied other religions and found that people in them had the same experiences, and then discovered people with no religion at all could make them happen to others using psychological tricks. He watched one man being able to convert people to Christianity because they were convinced they could feel the Holy Spirit flowing through them, even though he was an atheist and could clearly explain just what psychological techniques he was using on people to cause them to have those experiences.
The man on the forum said he now believes the experiences he got after praying when he heard a voice telling him what to do and the feeling of peace were wish fulfilment - he wanted something so badly his mind produced it for him. Whether it really was that or not is unclear, but he said if there are adequate perfectly natural explanations for things, he doesn't feel he has to assume that what happened to him was supernatural.
It seems a similar thing's often going on when people say God told them something, or they believe God wants them to do something - they're making things up, or mistaking a feeling they have for a prompting from God, sometimes because it's to do with something they really want to happen.
A longstanding pastor said he'd known that kind of thing to happen a lot, and he thought people often said God had told them something not really believing God had said anything at all, but simply because they wanted to come across as more spiritual, to influence others to think God's favour was on them, and to give their words more authority, since they were worried they wouldn't be listened to if they just said it was their own opinion. He said he'd often done it himself, to give his words more credibility and to enhance his reputation.
It seems sometimes people genuinely believe mistakenly that God has spoken to them though, sometimes because they really want something to happen themselves or feel sure it's a good idea, and they mistake the feeling in their mind telling them to do the thing for God's prompting. That could be disastrous. For instance, it could lead them into marriages they don't think through first to decide whether they're a good idea. Then again, people probably often marry without stopping to think about whether it's a good idea anyway.
But it's as well to be skeptical when anyone, even a well-known pastor, says God's telling them something.
I read a web page written by someone who was fairly sure God really had spoken to her sometimes because good things had come out of it, but she warned against assuming God must be speaking too readily. She said she herself had thought God was telling her to marry a man on five separate occasions. It was a different man each time! She feels sure it was really just her own desires speaking.
I heard a story about how a woman once went to Cliff Richard's house and told him God had told her to be his housekeeper. He said she was about the fiftieth woman God had supposedly told that!
In some churches, things go on that seem strange to outsiders. People are told those things are manifestations of God's Holy Spirit, and they're a sign of godliness. It can be assumed that every truly godly person will want them or have them. Naturally, anyone who believes what the congregation seems to think and wants to be considered godly will try to do those things.
One of those things is speaking in tongues. People can genuinely believe they've got a gift of God's Holy Spirit when in reality they're speaking gibberish because they're learning from others who do; but they assume what they're talking is a heavenly language. Or they can speak in tongues for other reasons that have nothing to do with the supernatural. There can be a lot of peer pressure in some churches to speak in tongues as proof of God's blessing, so people can feel under pressure to fake it.
Here's an example, from a message on an Internet forum:
Years ago I attended an Apostolic Pentecostal church with a friend.
Tongues were a big part of their faith; it was the sign one had been 'saved'.
When asked I said I had never spoken in tongues.
There was tongues practice at this church to ensure one was still saved. Practice consisted of repeating 'thank you Jesus' nonstop for up to an hour.
I did this and about 30 minutes into it my tongue got so tired I started speaking gibberish. I assure you it was no supernatural event. Because I had lost the ability to speak clearly and felt like a fool I stopped to rest my tongue. The woman next to me who was there to help me speak in tongues mildly chastised me for 'resisting the spirit'. She said I was getting the 'gift', but I refused it.
People can fake speaking in tongues and feel bad because they know they're faking and assume they're the only one who hasn't been blessed with the real gift. But a lot of the congregation might feel like that. Even the church leaders could sometimes be deliberately faking.
Studies have been done into speaking in tongues. It's been found that people can learn to do so very quickly in a totally non-Christian setting. In fact, a study of sixty students found that a fifth of them could mimic someone else who sounded as if they were speaking in tongues after only listening to them for one minute, and a large majority of the rest could speak in what sounded like tongues after training.
Also, it's been found that when an influential leader who speaks in tongues in a certain style has visited a church, a lot of the congregation speak in his style of tongues for a while, which suggests they've learned it from him.
Of course that doesn't prove that all speaking in tongues is fake. But it's evidence that it's important not to accept any tongues-speaking you hear too readily as supernatural, or to allow peer pressure to convince you that everyone else in a congregation can do it and there must be something ungodly about you if you can't.
Basically, it's best not to set too much store by what others in a congregation or the church leaders say.
Some people may be especially willing to listen to some preachers and think what they say is authoritative because they can do things that seem impressive. One such thing is seeming to be able to knock people flat on their back without even touching them, or by hardly touching them at all, supposedly through the power of God. They say people are being "slain in the spirit"
What's often happening is that they will push on a person's forehead, not very hard, but it's easy to make a person begin to fall backwards by even gently pushing the forehead, especially if they're standing with their feet together and they've been there a while. If someone did that in an everyday situation, the person they did it to would immediately step back automatically to steady themselves. But anyone who believes they're supposed to be falling over and it's God's will likely won't. That's especially if there's someone behind them who immediately gets hold of them from behind and helps them down, supposedly to protect them, but likely often to increase the preacher's success rate. Many people that's happened to are likely not to say anything, because they will gain their own prestige by being seen to have been touched by God, and because there might be people around who would think they couldn't be deserving if God didn't really touch them by making them fall over.
But some preachers/evangelists don't even touch people and they fall down. There are several explanations as to why it can happen. For one thing, if people fully believe they will go down when the preacher does whatever he does to show it's about to happen, they'll likely help the process along a bit, especially since to be left standing on their own would seem pretty disgraceful, as if everyone else deserved a blessing from God except them. In some churches, anyone left standing does in fact get frowned on, taken aside by a deacon for some ministry because they're told Satan must still have an influence in their lives. Most people probably don't think that through when they fall over; they can simply be carried along by the emotional fervour that's being built up in the meeting by the joyful singing and preacher's words that can fill the place with a sense of expectation that something dramatic will happen, so they want and expect it to happen and can be especially suggestible because they're deferential to the preacher who they see as someone who knows best, and they're letting their emotions govern them so their critical thinking faculties are on hold a bit.
Also, sometimes the people the preacher's about to bless are positioned so they're looking into bright stage lights. A very slight push on the forehead could at first make them blink, which people tend to do on reflex as a protective mechanism when people put a hand near their eyes. When they open their eyes a bit with their head tilted back slightly, they might be at an angle where the lights are shining in their eyes even more brightly and it might disorientate them for a few seconds. Then they find themselves on the floor, not really knowing how it happened, but feeling as if they must have blacked out for a couple of seconds.
Sometimes a person's friends can be in on a trick, hoping to gain them as a convert by causing something to happen that they hope will impress them, for instance by telling the preacher things about them without them knowing, so when the preacher repeats them back to them in a church meeting, they assume God's telling the preacher things about them. Or at least their friends hope they will.
Something else that can deceive people is that some churches have special rules they demand their followers obey. They don't seem to make sense, and yet the church leaders say they're signs of holiness. For instance, some churches teach that women should never cut their hair, not even to trim straggly bits. Anyone who does is frowned on. But the rule doesn't make sense, and in fact it doesn't come from the Bible; it seems to come from the minds of the people who started the church. It's well worth investigating rules like that, examining whether they really make sense, and rejecting anything that seems downright unreasonable. Don't assume anyone has supernatural authority to make up rules as they go along, and to try to pressure anyone into obeying them.
At worst, believing authority figures who claim to be wise in the ways of God or to have special knowledge from God or supernatural God-given gifts can be physically harmful. Some people claim to be faith healers, for example. Some people in their meetings can experience temporary relief of their symptoms for purely non-supernatural reasons, for instance if some pain goes away because a lot of it was caused by very tense muscles, and the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere of the meeting and the promise of help soothes them. The danger is that if they think they've been cured, they might throw away their medication, and then be in trouble when the symptoms return. Apparently people have even died after becoming convinced they'd been healed when they hadn't been so they didn't seek medical help.
Some famous ones have been caught in fraudulent or immoral activity. For instance, one man, Peter Popoff, was caught claiming to be giving the audience "words of knowledge" from God about individuals in it; he gave precise details about their illnesses and even said where they lived. But it turned out that his knowledge came from conversations a couple of people who worked with him had had with audience members before the show! He would also have people in wheelchairs who weren't actually disabled at his shows. Most people didn't realise they weren't disabled. When they got up and walked, most assumed they'd been impressively healed by God.
Some people started handing out pamphlets that explained how he was conning people. He warned his followers off them, claiming they were tools of the devil.
After he was exposed as a fraud, his popularity declined sharply. But after some years, he made a comeback. One thing he did was to advertise that he was giving away free 'miracle manna' that would give people healing and financial success. When people sent off for it, they would afterwards get letters asking for donations.
He's not the only one using techniques like that to con people out of money and gain prestige. It's best to be wary of all claims to be able to call down or transmit supernatural healing, whether that be healing through spirits or healing through God.
One problem is that the more a person is suffering and the more desperate they are for help, and the less they seem to be able to get it from conventional means, the more likely they will be to do things that mean they end up in an even worse position, because they'll be more willing to try anything; and because they're so desperate for a cure, they're less likely to step back and analyse whether what they're being offered is likely to be genuine help. They'll want it as soon as they can have it. Unfortunately, they become just the kinds of people con-men claiming that supernatural power works through them know they can prey on most. But it's less likely to happen if they're fully aware of the dangers.
People can sometimes be taken in by faith healers and other people they perceive as powerful authority figures in the Christian Church, because they speak as if they really know what they're talking about, or say they've been privileged to have divine revelations telling them things. Their books can gain a lot of money for them because people think they will learn better ways of leading their lives, especially if the books have enticing titles that promise them wealth or other blessings or God's protection if they change their lives in certain ways and pray in certain ways. There can be a strong suggestion that if a technique doesn't work, they're just not trying hard enough or haven't got enough faith that it'll work. So people it doesn't work for can blame themselves.
But they ought to be asking, "How much evidence is there that this technique really works? Can I really be sure the person telling me these things knows what he's talking about?"
It's healthy to question things, rather than just assuming what you were taught to believe as a child must be true. Some unpleasant things can be believed by a lot of people just because they were taught for years as children to believe them. Children will naturally believe what their parents and other adults tell them; it's necessary for their survival that they're not very skeptical at a young age, since there are so many dangers an inexperienced little child could fall into otherwise.
For instance, if a parent said, "Don't climb on that table; you might hurt yourself badly if you fall off!" a child could have problems if they thought, "I think I'll test that one out. I don't have any evidence I'd hurt myself. I'll put Teddy on the table and push him off. If nothing bad happens to him, I don't see any reason to believe what my mother says so I'll try experimenting with falling off it myself!" A young child just isn't wise enough to know what's good for them and what isn't and how to best test out the difference. They don't have the life experience to know those things. So it's necessary that they be programmed to believe what adults tell them.
The trouble is that they can believe without question things that aren't true, and in fact are downright harmful, along with the useful things. And if everyone around them is convinced those things are right, they won't have any reason to question them. They'll just become more convinced of them, unless they come across information that convinces them they're not true after all. If they don't, they'll likely pass them on to their own children, certainly not because they want to deceive them, but because they genuinely believe they're true.
Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to his daughter when she turned 10, urging her to think seriously before believing anything she was told that didn't seem to have any evidence to back it up. Here's a lot of what he said. Much of it's good advice about not believing something just because you're told to by someone you respect, or because you've always assumed it was true because a lot of people in your community believe it and taught you it was true when you were a child.
To my dearest daughter,
Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun? The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.
Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball – the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.
Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder. ...
But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something, and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called ‘tradition’, ‘authority’, and ‘revelation’.
First, tradition. ... Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they’ve been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over centuries. That’s tradition.
The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn’t true, handing it down over any number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!
Most people in England have been baptized into the Church of England, but this is only one of many branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as the Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. ... you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons – evidence – for believing what they believe. But actually their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.
Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn’t die but was lifted bodily into Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don’t talk about her much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t call her the ‘Queen of Heaven’. The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not a very old one. The Bible says nothing about how or when she died; in fact the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn’t invented until about six centuries after Jesus’s time. At first it was just made up, in the same way as any story like Snow White was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented 600 years after Mary’s death.
I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.
Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the Pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are old men with beards called Ayatollahs. Lots of young Muslims are prepared to commit murder, purely because the Ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.
When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950 the Pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The Pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that Pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the Pope, you should believe everything he said, any more than you believe everything that lots of other people say. ...
Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like ‘authority’. But actually it is much better than authority because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.
The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called ‘revelation’. If you had asked the Pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been ‘revealed’ to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling ‘revelation’. It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?
Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, ‘Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?’ Now suppose I answered: ‘I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.’ You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside ‘feeling’ on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.
People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.
Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.
Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.
I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. ...
Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.
You speak English but your friend speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to ‘swim about’ in your own separate ‘people sea’. Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more truer than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at ‘swimming about in their people sea’, children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.
It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed – even if its completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place – it can go on forever. Could this be what happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.
Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers, Mormons or Holy Rollers, and all are utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and someone speaks German.
Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in the Catholic Republic but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.
What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.
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Among other things, this website features articles on overcoming conflict in marriages and with others, recovering from emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, and coping with other difficult life situations.